So was de Gaulle really antisemitic?

A new book reveals that the French leader had a complex attitude towards Jews. Its author, Jonathan Fenby, explains why


De Gaulle was angered by Israel’s failure to heed his advice over the Six-Day War

De Gaulle was angered by Israel’s failure to heed his advice over the Six-Day War

Was France's greatest leader of the 20th century antisemitic? The question hangs over Charles de Gaulle 40 years after his death. It is easy to reach such a conclusion of a man who spoke at a press conference in the Élysée Palace in 1967 of Jews as an "elite people, domineering and sure of themselves" who, once they had gathered in a state, were destined to show "burning and conquering ambition". But, after studying the question while writing a new biography of the General, I think the verdict should be more nuanced.

During his long life - he was 80 when he died - de Gaulle could certainly say things which jar. On assignment as a military adviser to Poland for 10 years from 1919, he reflected the sentiments of his conservative, Catholic upbringing and the military milieu in which he lived when he wrote that "everything is very dilapidated and empty of furniture after so many comings and goings of Russians, Boches, Jews".

The collected volume of his letters home contain a curious piece of censorship of a sentence which refers to "countless… detested to death by all classes of society, all enriched by the war from which they have profited on the backs of the Russians, Boches and Poles, and pretty much ready for a social revolution from which they will draw a lot of money in exchange for some bad deeds". The missing word, "Jews", seems inescapable, even if the editor chose the path of political correctness.

In a later book on the French military, de Gaulle deplored the effect of the Dreyfus Affair, but his attitude appears to have been rooted in its negative impact on the army, which he venerated, rather than the injustice done to the captain as a Jew.

After de Gaulle crossed to London 70 years ago this week as France fell to the Nazis, his Free French movement included former members of antisemitic movements from the 1930s. One of its early publications blamed the defeat on recently nationalised citizens "with a dubious past". But when the General's chief of staff refused to allow Georges Boris, a Jewish former chief of staff of the Socialist Popular Front Prime Minister, Léon Blum, to see him on the grounds that the Free French did not need Jews or Socialists, de Gaulle banged the table and shouted pragmatically: "We will never be too many." He gave Boris a series of jobs, including writing the first biographical sketch of him.

After his return to power in 1958 and the foundation of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle appointed Michel Debré, a rabbi's grandson, as Prime Minister and adopted an economic reform plan drawn up by Jacques Rueff, who had been sacked from the Bank of France during the Pétain years because he was Jewish.

So one might say that the General's record to the 1960s gives little solid evidence for an accusation of anti-semitism. But then came the press conference of November, 1967, in which he spoke of the elite, domineering people and the "warrior state of Israel" which would take any opportunity to seize additional territory to house its growing population.

However, I think this episode needs to be considered from several points of view. De Gaulle was 77. He had come to believe increasingly in his own wisdom and his status as a great elder statesman whose words should be listened to. But Israel had signally failed to do this.

When Abba Eban passed through Paris on the eve of war, de Gaulle had counselled against launching hostilities against Egypt. But Israel made it clear that it thought he should speak out publicly against Nasser. For de Gaulle, this could only be counter productive, his anger increased by the way in which none of the other parties involved were taking any notice of him. Receiving the King of Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Foreign Minister, he said simply that the existence of the Jewish state was a fact, but went no further, adding that France had had nothing to do with its creation.

Israel's refusal to follow his admonition not to go to war continued to rankle. In July, he brought up his conversation with Eban at a meeting with the US ambassador who recorded him as adding: "What do you think they did with my advice? They completely ignored it!"

In a later letter to David Ben Gurion, de Gaulle insisted that he had meant nothing disparaging by his remarks at the press conference; on the contrary, the characteristics he had attributed to the Jews were the key to their survival through the centuries. When they met in 1968, France's Grand Rabbi thought him genuinely surprised by the fuss he had caused, repeating that his words had been intended as praise.

There were probably other elements at play. Most fundamentally, his intense view of the nation state allowed its people to have only one loyalty. That made the identification with Israel of French Jews suspect in his eyes, particularly when tens of thousands demonstrated for a foreign country against his policy.

Taken together, all these factors created an impossible network of resentments towards a country which, in many ways, echoed the General's vision of what a nation should be. Does that make him an antisemite? I think it was more a matter of pique and of being shown up to lack influence in a vital part of the world. But few episodes did more to reduce his status in the eyes of many of his countrymen and the world. The most crushing verdict came from the most loyal of followers, Debré, who was quoted as judging that the General displayed "an infantile-psychological-senile" attitude.

Jonathan Fenby's book 'The General, Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved' is published this week by Simon & Schuster at £30

    Last updated: 1:51pm, June 17 2010